It took multiple attempts to be able to sit down with Mel Waters. Waters has several things going on, like owning and running his own tattoo shop, Moonrise Tattoo. And when he’s not there, he’s working on a mural. Yet, these are not reasons why he often cancels and reschedules. As busy as it gets, if it has to do with art or giving back to his community, he’s there on his hustle. Waters doesn’t cancel because he’s irresponsible or because of poor time management. The reason he cancels has to do with a tiny human being by the name of Ryser, his son, who is two and a half years old, whom he adores.
Waters is widely recognized for the Carlos Santana mural he painted during October 2014 on a wall on 19th and Mission streets. I had seen the Santana mural over and over, but I first stumbled upon his name last year when reporting on the power of activism through art. When visiting Clarion Alley, which was filled with bright colors, my attention quickly deviated towards a black and white painting. In his paintings, Waters utilizes primarily black and white spray paint cans. This one was no different. It was a portrait of a mother holding her child. The piece had the words written all over “Enough is enough. Stop killing our children.”
We had since gotten in contact and talked over the phone a few times last year and exchanged a number of text messages. I was familiar with Waters, but I didn’t really know him. When he found a brief period of time that worked in both our schedules, he was more than happy to welcome me to his tattoo shop, Moonrise Tattoo. This was my first time meeting Waters in person, and only my second time ever inside a tattoo shop. What struck me is that Waters had tattoo portfolios, but also art all around. Not just his own but art created by his friends, his community and his mentors. Waters was sitting there, lettering for a customer would be coming in for a tattoo in a couple of hours. He greeted me and pulled a chair for me to sit on. He said he would show me around, but I was already looking at the whole shop. He sat on a stool behind the counter. With a big smile on his face, he began reminiscing about his journey as a son, a father and an artist.
For Waters, 37, art was always a side thing and never a part of the plan. But today he is an artist, and has been a full-time artist since he left his full-time job at California Pacific Medical Center. For him, being an artist means creating murals which he is known for, such as the Santana mural mentioned earlier. Some of his own selected artwork include a Portrait of Edna Lewis inside of Wings Wings in the Haight, and the SF Chinatown mural on Washington Street at Grant Street. According to the description on his website, the mural was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. Waters also spent time celebrating Black History Month by doing One Street Portrait A Day. Although it is his murals that are often noticed, these days his work space is primarily his tattoo shop and the streets of San Francisco. Waters has now immersed himself in art and is a full-time artist. He hopes his art will evoke emotions. But as an artist he doesn’t limit himself to just one or the other.
“I don’t classify myself as just one if anything just an artist,” Waters said. “Definitely I’m a tattoo artist. I’m a muralist. I’m a painter. I consider myself all of those things. But I don’t just classify myself anymore. Because I do a lot and they all helped me survive as an artist.”
As an artist today, the source of inspiration has been the artist he surrounds himself with today. Susan Cervantes is one of Waters many sources of inspiration in his community as an artist. Cervantes says she has known Waters for at least three to four years, and she is mainly familiar with his work as a muralist. Cervantes believes that Waters captures the essence of people that he is portraying.
“I think he does it very well with the medium that he’s using, which is all spray paint,”Cervantes said. “It’s all air soft, so pretty amazing to get all of those effects with a can of paint. All the ingredients, he’s also done work in color with parts as well.”
Waters grew up in San Francisco during the 1980s and 1990s. He points to graffiti and comic books as mediums that moved his muse as a young child. He notes that it was the city’s surroundings, and the people that inspired him. “There’s a lot of people that I can mention, that I haven’t, that is very big on the progress of my work,” he said. “Shout out to them they know who they are. There are just so many beautiful people in my world, and in my community in San Francisco.” The people and stories that formed who he is as an artist began to shape his life as a kid. His parents split up at a young age, yet he remained influenced by both cultures.
He was raised alongside his brother by a Filipino mother. He remained living mostly among his mom’s relatives for the majority of the time. All of his uncles had tattoos, so when Waters got his first tattoo at 16, it was crazy, but it also wasn’t a big deal. He sees it as a part of family tradition.
“Culturally it’s just kinda like that, Filipino people like tattoos,” Waters said as he showed off some of his more visible tattoos, such as a simple detailed rose on his hand. This was the first tattoo he designed on himself, and it was a protocol for all apprentices. “It’s just more so my uncle tattooed me, we come from a culture of that lifestyle, tattoos and stuff,” he adds.
During his days as a young teen, Waters discovered an enjoyment of basketball. Waters played basketball since the fifth grade up until his senior year at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Waters even almost played college ball when he briefly attended the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. He had chosen to attend a historically black college, because his grandmother taught there as an English professor, though she passed away in 1992 and was gone by the time he got there in 2000.
He said attending an historically black college was a great addition to his experience as an African American. Waters didn’t share why he didn’t play college basketball or why he left college in specific. He just said that his plans didn’t work out and that because he wasn’t studying what he should have. He left and returned to the Bay Area. After leaving college, Waters worked at California Pacific Medical Center for a while as a transporter moving patients around. During his breaks, Waters used the computers to learn more about art. “I worked there for like six and a half, seven years where I found myself discovering art,” he says.
Being in the Bay Area for any artist in the making is a challenge. Waters currently lives in Pacifica, but has managed to keep his tattoo shop open in San Francisco. To become a successful artist means to be able to make a living off solely your art. Before achieving this, Waters faced some challenges. At times, he had to scrape up enough money to buy a $2 cheeseburger, or when he tried to sell his art on Telegraph Street. “Those are some pretty personal moments,” he says. “Trying to sell your art to the live, but then things come back around and opportunities come around and you just kind of bounce back and those experiences opened me up.”
Despite the difficulties that a young artist can face, Waters has kept himself going. He creates art at all times. He also often spends time with his son, Ryser. He calls it pretty basic stuff, but he shows an interest in more than art, for example, he also loves antique stores because he likes treasures. Although his art has become well-known and he has made a name for himself as an artist, Waters is just living his life. His surrounding continue to inspire him. “You can find some cool art, cool books, cool stuff, you know, that just kind of helps you as an artist inspires you,” he says. “I have the never ending desire to create. It’s just something that just burns in there. It’s like a candle that just won’t go out.”